Five Ways Only You Can Be You
Everyone seems to think writing is a magical talent—you either have it or you don’t. Connor wrote a fabulous guest post last week showing how each and every one of us is already a writer, that it’s an act of faith to tell the stories inside us.
Another act of faith is to make up your own rules as you go. Many successful authors emerge from MFA programs or the like, but it seems the ones we hear about—JK Rowling was a researcher for Amnesty International, James Frey was a crack addict—never took a class in their lives.
If rules work for you, follow them. If you don’t know the rules, don’t let that stop you. Through trial and error, I’ve fashioned the following five rules for myself. Since I don’t know what the “real rules” of writing are, I might have stumbled on them by chance, or I might have invented writer’s gold by accident. All I know is they work for me, and that’s why I use them.
I once heard Kathy Griffin (my favorite comedienne) during an interview say that the best advice she ever received was to censor nothing. She said if comedians think too much about how something will sound, it loses all the funny.
The same is true for writing, only we’re not preserving the funny, we’re preserving our voice. I learned the hard way that voice is the alpha and omega of writing. Without a distinctive voice, you risk drowning in the sea of words that passes for salable books all around us. With your own inimitable voice, you cut a wake through the tumult that others can easily find and follow.
Only you can be you. Hemingway is Hemingway, Rowling is Rowling, King is King. They’re successful in part because they’re recognizable, but they couldn’t do you if they tried. So don’t worry about doing them or any other voice you admire.
Let it all spring from your unique font of creativity: A) it will be easier because you’re not forcing anything and B) allowing creative juices to run freely primes the pump for more creative juices. It only gets better, the freer you give yourself permission to be.
Your writing doesn’t have to please anyone but you. If it pleases you, it will please others. How many others it pleases may be the difference between a Lexus and a Kia, but you can only succeed longterm working with what resonates in your gut.
James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, is self-taught, and if you’ve read any of his books, you can tell. To my mind, he is the grittier Hemingway. His writing style turns lots of people off, but I love it and so do the millions upon millions who have bought his books. I’m guessing a lot of Creative Writing teachers and Fine Arts professors would have quashed the uniqueness out of his work because it didn’t follow “the rules.”
Back Up and Change Directions When You’re Stuck
Writer’s block may arise from a number of things, but one surefire cause is veering off true north in your story. I think of it like skiing gracefully down a mountain, each paragraph flowing into the next, all of it feeling smooth and good. Then suddenly your skis skid on ice and all movement stops.
I have sat for literal hours trying to push my prose forward, only to learn the hard way that a full stop of forward motion usually means I’ve skied myself into a dead end.
If I go back up one paragraph and head down in a different direction, just like I would take a different path down the mountain next time to avoid the ice, I find that the forward momentum comes back.
Let’s say I’m describing the dilemma a mother faces with one of her children. I want to texturize the scene by including her husband’s way of dealing with the situation, but I can’t think of what to write, or I write and rewrite over and over but don’t feel satisfied.
I’ve learned that when that happens, I’m headed in the wrong direction (toward the husband). I’ve learned to change tacks, perhaps expanding further on the mother, or adding in a sibling’s point of view first. There’s a way the story itself takes the lead if I let it.
Sculpt Until it Sings
Ask 100 people what they like about a book and you’ll get at least twenty-five answers. That number is actually just a wild guess, but my point is that beauty—and everything else—is in the eye of the beholder.
Once you have a censor-free block of text that you’re happy with, go back and sculpt it, smooth it, shape it. You might shave off a word or phrase, add a curlicue of parenthetical thought, replace a word with one that has fewer or more syllables to create a rhythm in the flow and so forth.
I picture Michelangelo working on David, making innumerable tiny changes to bring to life what he saw in his mind’s eye. The emotion evoked when we gaze on the statue of David is akin to the emotion we want to feel when we read. I call it singing. I don’t stop sculpting until my writing sings to me. If I read it and feel emotions of any kind, along with a thrill (however subtle) that I am on a compelling ride, I know I’ve hit a homerun.
Read From the Bottom Up
Finally, when I’ve worked and worked a piece, let it sit for a while, and then polished it bright and shiny, I apply one more technique before I send it off.
I read it from the bottom up, one paragraph at a time.
Like skiing, starting at the top and reading to the bottom has its own momentum, its own flow, simply because ideas follow on ideas. I’ve noticed that if I read each paragraph in reverse order, I am not lulled by that momentum and flow into missing tiny flaws. When I read from bottom to top, I notice things that were hidden before. It’s almost magic the way I think a nearly perfect piece goes up a notch or two with this technique.
As Connor wrote, writing is an act of faith in yourself. You are the only you there will ever be, and only you can write like you. Connect with the truest part of you, let it out, and see what happens.
Donna Carol Voss is an author, thinker, blogger, and speaker. A Berkeley grad, a former pagan, and a Mormon on purpose, she offers Original Thinking on Everday Living in the areas of Faith, Family, and Front Page happenings.